So two years after my mom passed away, my dad got married again. This was nine years ago now—and my dad himself has since died—but that was an interesting time in my life. The woman he married was his brother’s widow, my aunt. At the time I described our family as going from zero to Jerry Springer in one fell swoop. And when my cousin came out after the service starting to say that now this made her both my cousin and my step-sister, I cut her off before she could utter the words.
The wedding took place in Michigan where I grew up, at a church I was unfamiliar with, and a pastor who obviously thought the best part was that the bride would still have the same married name. After the ceremony, my siblings and I dutifully made our way to the reception only to discover that two of my cousins-now-step-siblings had changed into shorts and t-shirts over the course of the ten minute car ride. “It’s their mother’s wedding,” I muttered to my brothers and sisters. “You’d think they’d make more of an effort to look even partially presentable out of respect for her.” We shook our heads and tut-tutted to each other as we tried to enjoy a beverage and wondered what the future held.
I have to begin today with some background in order to help us understand our gospel. Matthew almost certainly writes to a Jewish Christian audience living in or near Palestine, and that these early Jewish believers were experiencing intense persecution from the Jewish religious authorities. A number of aspects in the gospel point to this audience, including the focus on the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—along with a number of symbols and allusions to Jewish history. Jesus can be seen throughout the gospel as partaking in the tradition of Moses, and Jesus’ teachings and miracles keep hearkening back to that leader of the Exodus.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
However, Matthew’s Jesus also often gets very confrontational with the religious leaders, likely because his readers are also experiencing that conflict. Jesus has been in their sight for some time, and now it’s reaching its climax. It’s the Monday of Holy Week in our reading. The day before, Jesus rode on that donkey, and was hailed with praises and waving branches. On this Monday, he comes into the temple and has been asked by whose authority he teaches. The leaders are trying to trap him, of course. But Jesus is a bit tricksy himself, and asks them an unanswerable question too. He then tells a parable that those religious types know casts them in a bad light, and they can’t say anything. Our reading this morning is how Jesus continues speaking to these leaders.
Over the course of my sabbatical, I spent 40 nights camping in a tent. While that has a nice Biblical ring to it, I didn’t plan it initially that way and until about two weeks ago thought I’d hit 39. The longest consecutive stretch of sliding into a sleeping bag was 12 days while on our family car camping trip as we made our way up the Rockies with stops at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff National Parks. I additionally had a seven day stretch on the hills of Kilimanjaro, and six days in a row while in the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota and Ontario. Out of those 40 nights, most were not in the same location, but rather setting up camp for a day or two and then moving on to a new place.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
Some of the sites were breathtaking, like the one at the Signal Mountain area of the Grand Tetons. We looked out from our tent over Jackson Lake with the entire jagged range of those mountains just beyond. We sat entranced that first day by the immense beauty. But not all was rosy even there as we had not one but two nights of gusty winds that kicked up for an hour or so after bedtime with the stiff breeze coming down hard from the mountains and over the lake. The wind had nothing to stop it before it hit the side of our enormous eight man tent which acted just like a sail. The four of us stood with our backs against the poles, holding hands, trying to not have our tent take flight and waiting for the storm to pass. On other nights at places so remote I could hear only the call of a loon, that plaintive wail it made as it tried to locate other birds nearby. One night I heard the sound of trucks rushing by and then hitting their brakes on the interstate that the campground backed up to. I never really knew what I would get.
I have a confession to make: I didn’t get it all done.
This sabbatical I’m about to embark on has been in the planning for about a couple of years, and since last Fall I’ve been earnestly making lists of things that needed to be accomplished before I left, both personal and professional. Updates that I wanted to conclude, tasks to work through, projects to complete. I had fitness goals to achieve, cluttered spaces to be organized, and home improvement undertakings to finish. Of course there were the regular aspects of my job, the joy of meeting some of you to grab a cup of coffee over at Red Barn. The pastoral concerns that have emerged in the past couple of months, communicating the exciting things happening here at St. Mark’s, searching for a youth director. Add to that the personal things: sports and music activities for the kids, supporting Melissa in her doctoral program, dinners to cook.
The picture I had in my mind grew to fantastical levels: I would be the male equivalent of the Proverbs 31 woman. Going to bed late at night, and rising before the sun, I would do more things than humanly possible all before I set out on this adventure of a lifetime. (And a friendly reminder, that the woman described in Proverbs 31 is actually Wisdom personified, but I digress.) The image I held up for myself was utter perfection.
One of my favorite Disney characters is Edna Mode, the designer of superhero suits from “The Incredibles,” who also answers simply to “E.” The not so average Bob and Helen Parr—better known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl—have been underground in their forced retirement from super hero work, and both have reason to visit her. Bob to repair his old suit which has gotten a tear—and that E will only fix if she can design him a new suit.
While cleaning one day when Bob is out of town, Helen notices the stitched up sleeve on that old suit and wonders what Bob is up to. While at E’s mansion, it dawns on Helen that she doesn’t know where Bob currently is in addition to the midlife crisis he’s been having. Ultimately, Helen breaks down, sobbing. We see Edna holding a roll of toilet paper for Helen to use as Kleenex, as she recounts the recent past. Edna puts down the roll, and grabs a newspaper to push the used tissues into the trash.
Anyone here ever read Charlotte’s Web? While many of you may remember the overall plot of EB White’s classic book, I suspect the beginning has gotten a bit fuzzy for most of you. Fern—the delightful girl who befriends the farm animals—sleepily asks where her Pa is going with the ax one morning when she come down for breakfast. Her mother explains that some pigs were born overnight and that one of pigs is a runt. “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything,” her mother says. “So your father has decided to do away with it.” Fern will have nothing to do with this and wakes up quickly. She runs down to the barn lickity split and stops her dad from killing that poor pig. Later that day while she’s at school she decides to name him Wilbur, and she takes wonderful care of him. It’s only later, after that pig has grown quite a bit, that Wilbur makes his way to Zuckerman’s farm up the road.
Wilbur soon discovers that farms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. He can’t find a friend to play with among the other animals and loneliness sets in. He cries himself to sleep one night when a voice tells him that in the morning she will be his friend. At the sliver of dawn, he asks all of the other animals if they were the one who had spoken to him the night before, but they all tell him to go away. Finally the same voice calls out to Wilbur, “Salutations!” White describes what happened next in this way, “Wilbur jumped to his feet. ‘Salu-what?’ he cried. ‘Salutations’ repeated the voice. ‘What are they, and where are you?’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Please, please, tell we where you are. And what are salutations?’ ‘Salutations are greetings,’ said the voice. ‘When I say “salutations,” it’s just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning.’” It’s how Charlotte meets Wilbur.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
The last words Jesus utters from the cross, that means of execution by the Romans, are simply: “It is finished.” It is complete. Accomplished. The work he came to do both in and for this world as the Son of the Living God has been done. And, implicit in the Greek, there is also the sense of a new beginning, a start of something that has been waiting to spring up around us, much like the sight of those first sprouts of a germinating seed.
Truly this man was God’s Son.” The centurion and those with him make this realization once their deed is done—after Jesus takes his last breath, and the earth trembles and graves open and risen saints emerge. “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
The only words Jesus himself speaks from the time of his trial before Pilate to his last breath is that plaintive cry: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani.” “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” These final statements from Matthew’s crucifixion scene stand in stark juxtaposition to one another. “Truly this was God’s Son” “Why have you forsaken me?”
The Israelites get a bad rap. They’ve been making their way through the desert, enduring hot days and miles of walking, and when they get to their campsite they can’t find fresh water anywhere. Yes, they grumble. But they’ve just spent the last 400 years of their history as slaves, and they thought that somehow things would be different, that they would no longer be pushed to their physical limits. They want to be in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. Instead they’re at Rephidim, and there’s not a drop of water to be found. And they’re thirsty.
So they complain to Moses, who in turn complains to God about the complaining Israelites without seeing the irony or the humor in it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cries out to God. “They are almost ready to stone me.” God instructs Moses what he is to do. He’s to gather the elders in the midst of the people, and take the staff with which he struck the Nile, and go. When he gets to the rock at Horeb, he’s to strike it with the same staff and water will come forth. Moses does as the Lord commanded him and water flowed out for the people. And they changed the name of the place to Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled (Massah) and tested (Meribah) the Lord. They wanted to know if God was indeed among them or not.
But which of us wouldn’t be panicky if we showed up at the intended destination and there was no water to be found? Some of the campsites at State Parks in Massachusetts don’t have potable water, and they make sure you know that before you reserve a spot for a night or two. “Fresh water is not available for showers or drinking. Remember, campers should bring at least 1 gallon drinking water per person, per day.” Which isn’t too big of a deal you might think, except that these instructions are for campsites on the islands in Boston Harbor and you can’t just pop over to a local Kwik-E-Mart and grab some bottled water after the ferry has left you behind. You’re then in the same predicament as those Israelites, and I suspect that grumbling wouldn’t be far behind, especially if your buddy did the trip planning and forgot to tell you about the water.
Since September I’ve been preaching a series on the marks of a 21st century disciple. At times I’ve included the line explicitly, “This and such is a mark of a 21st century disciple.” At times I’ve been slightly less direct, moving around something that defines the life of a disciple, looking at it from different angles, without spelling it out quite so specifically. (Part of that is due to my background as a writer and not wanting to repeat the same sentence or its variant every single Sunday. That would get old.)
On this Sunday our Biblical texts serve up faith, and even those who are not followers of Jesus could probably tell you that it is one of the key characteristics of a disciple. Faith. Or perhaps belief, but not the belief in something as true — “I believe that this church building is made of stone” or “I believe in the law of gravity” — but rather the belief that something will happen in the future, something that has not happened yet— like “I believe the Sox will win the Series this year”—and never losing hope, even when it looks like it won’t take place. In the Greek it’s pistis, and besides faith and believe it also gets translated as assurance, fidelity and trust. Something that is sure and true. Something promised.
Any preacher who begins talking about faith sooner or later pulls out the epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11. The writer of that letter—whoever she is—gives a fantastic litany of the faith of our forebears, and begins with this definition. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Or as Eugene Patterson pens it in the Message Bible, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.” All of this is a backdrop for this morning.